Would you like to go vegan but are too busy to cook, don't like cooking, or simply have no idea where to begin? No worries! Veganism has become so popular that now there are lots of vegan options at restaurants or vegan options in the prepared and frozen foods sections of grocery stores. So you can come home tired or late at night, and simply pop your vegan meal into the microwave. For busy non-cooks out there, this is a great way to dabble and try out various vegan dishes to get acquainted with the cuisine. As you get more familiar with which foods are vegan, and what you like, you may even come to enjoy making a few dishes yourself.
Transitioning to a plant-based diet has a long list of benefits that are enticing a new wave of converts. Studies are being published on a regular basis that show how going vegan can extraordinarily limit your carbon footprint, and with better plant-based options showing up in grocery stores, it's easier than ever to switch over to the vegan lifestyle.
Your Options Increase with the Size of the City
There are a plethora of factors to consider when looking for vegan options at restaurants or vegan prepared food, and it's largely dependent on where you live. If you live in a major U.S. city, grocery stores tend to have diverse plant-based options available on a regular basis, and a search for vegan food on your computer or phone will usually yield enough results for plant-based restaurants to keep you busy trying new things and honing your new favorites. If you live in a smaller city on the west coast, or somewhere with a traditionally diverse food scene (like Asheville, NC or Austin, TX), you should have a long list of options as well. In smaller cities throughout the Midwest and East coast, however, solely plant-based restaurants are few and far between, and you'll be lucky to have one or two close-by. If you live in a town with less than 20,000 people, your take-out options are probably thin, and you'd be lucky to find a restaurant or grocery store with more than a salad bar available to you. College towns generally have options that your average small-town would not, so if there's a university close-by, check out the options close to campus, as they tend to have more diverse options.
Below, I'll cover what to look for on the menu at traditional restaurants for take-out, and then I'll go over where to find the best options at the grocery store.
Finding Vegan Options at Restaurants
Obviously, if you've found a plant-based restaurant, this part is easy. Just pick what sounds good! If you have to settle for what's there, however, and find yourself scouring the menu for possibilities, there are some considerations that can make the process easier.
Salads are the first easy choice in this situation. If you're grabbing a quick lunch, a salad can do the trick, and in most cases it's pretty easy to make it vegan. Most restaurants will have a vinaigrette for a dressing, and unless they mention a lemon-tahini or something-ginger, it's probably your only option. Before paying a hefty price for a chicken salad minus the chicken, check out side-salad options, or more unique options like an asian pear salad. Always be sure to have the cheese taken off, and be open with your waiter about it, as they should be trained to offer any substitutes available elsewhere on the menu. If you see asparagus or other vegetables as a side, see if they'll throw it on the salad in place of the meat or dairy.
If you want to order a traditional dish, it gets a bit trickier, as most are based around some type of meat option. And unfortunately, if you see veggie-something, it's probably smothered in cheese. Always ask if the veggie dishes can be cooked with alternate sauces minus the dairy products. Veggie burgers are often vegan, but not always, so you usually have to ask. If it is, simply order it without cheese and you're good to go.
Appetizers are another great option, as there are usually steamed vegetables, soups, fries, and other things you can combine for a hearty meal. Try pairing an appetizer with a side salad. You'd be surprised at how often I do this and end up with food to spare for later. Feeling limited? Stick with me here. You'll get better at deciphering your options at traditional restaurants as you go.
Lots of Choices in International Cuisine
Indian, Mexican, Mediterranean, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants are your best bets if you're limited on plant-based choices.
At Indian restaurants, you'll most often have a wide-range of vegan options. Vegetable pokoras, naan (made without buttermilk), and most vegetable curries are almost always vegan. It's easy to avoid meat, but it can be tricky to avoid dairy if you're not careful. Be sure to ask whether they've used a cream or coconut base for their sauces, and whether anything has been cooked with ghee or butter.
If you're craving Mexican, you first want to ask whether their rice and/or beans are cooked in lard. If so, you might have better luck at the Mexican place down the street (most areas have more than one). If you're good to go there, find the veggie burrito and order it without cheese or sour cream and ask for extra veggies, which they'll usually add for no extra charge. Fajitas and tacos are great options also, just be sure to list the dairy and meat options you want to remove. Guacamole is often made with cream and/or a little bit of cheese, so be sure to ask about that. Check the menu for soyrizo or tempeh as well, and remember you can always have chips and salsa!
In my experience, Mediterranean restaurants are some of the kindest to vegans. Most hummus options are vegan. Most salads can be made vegan minus the cheese. And they're usually happy to throw extra veggies on whatever you'd like without meat and dairy. Falafel is vegan-friendly as long as it's made without tatziki. Ask about yogurt-based sauces and make sure they substitute hummus. Dolmas are usually vegan also, and they're my absolute favorite.
Thai and Vietnamese restaurants most often have a veggie-based broth and traditionally have tofu on the menu, so it's a good choice if you're looking for a big dinner. They don't cook their rice in lard either, so it's easier to veganize the entrees. Look for veggie pho if you want soup, but double check that it's veggie broth. Also be sure to ask for it without fish sauce. Sauteed veggie platters are common options with rice noodles or just rice, and they usually have some coconut milk-based sauces to choose from. Avoid egg noodles, and always ask if veggie dishes have egg, which is common. Tofu can usually replace meat for any entree, and most veggie spring rolls are good to go. One last tip: it's important to be clear that you're non-dairy when ordering, as there's generally less of a distinction between vegan and vegetarian food in the east.
Salad bars are great options if you're feeling limited. As long as they have a vegan dressing available, you're set.
Vegan Prepared Foods at Grocery Stores
If you're running by a grocery store for a quick bite or dinner, ask if there's a plant-based foods section, which is common in larger chains or local grocers focused on local produce and organic foods. There you'll usually find burritos, sandwiches, wraps, and some frozen meals. If they don't have a specific section it can be a little more difficult, but once you learn where to find everything it gets easier.
If the quick bites section doesn't have what you're looking for, you can usually find good options at the hot bar or salad bar. Depending on your location, you might have hot vegan food that's ready to go. They usually have the ingredients listed above each section, and the salad bar will always have vegan options to piece together. The dressing can be the trickiest part, so be sure to check the ingredients. If you're not sure, just go for oil and vinegar.
The frozen foods section usually has a variety of options for vegans, and it's usually brand-dependent. If you see Daiya products, you'll know you can find pizzas and pasta plates ready to heat. Annies makes burritos, vegan macaroni and cheese, soups, and other vegan pastas (and they're always labeled vegan above the ingredients list). Depending on your location you'll see other frozen foods to choose from. If you're looking for soup or vegan chili in a store without a plant-based foods section, you'll find them with the rest of the canned soups.
Easy Vegan Snacks
If you're looking for ready-made vegan snacks, you might get lucky or you might have to walk all over the grocery store. It might be quicker to just pick your favorite vegetables and combine them with your favorite hummus. Pretzels, potato chips, and tortilla chips can always be combined with vegan dips or salsas also. Some larger cities (especially on the west coast) have entire plant-based grocery stores. Find one and you'll be in vegan snack heaven!
If you thought it was impossible to go vegan without becoming a full-on cook, I hope this article helps change your mind. Eating a solely plant-based diet isn't easy, but it's rewarding to stay strong and committed with all of those meat and dairy options staring at you from the shelves and the menu. If you're like me, you'll start to take pride in being creative with your options. If you embrace the challenge for the right reasons, you can have quite a bit of fun with it. No lifestyle choice has a better impact on the environment, and the health benefits to vegan diets are well known and wide ranging. It takes time to adapt, sure, but from personal experience I can tell you it's worth it for the peace of mind and body.
For more reading on going vegan, check out How to Create a Grain-Free Plant-Based Diet.
Andrew Potter is a writer based in Portland, OR. He advocates for plant-based diets, natural foot health, and climate awareness.